Pure Oud is the latest fragrance from artisan perfumer By Kilian and the first in a series created with Arabian Nights in mind. Kilian Hennessy reveals his passion for unusual ingredients, the luxury of yesteryear and the scent of now.
“For the launch of my fragrance collection in the Middle East, I wanted to offer a perfume that would be closer to the region’s tastes,” says Kilian Hennessy, the Paris-based founder of artisan perfumer By Kilian. “I didn’t want to be a Western brand that imposes its Western taste on the world.” Pure Oud is the result of that philosophy of localization – a woody, leathery and smoky scent that is as pungent as it is exotic.
The first in a series of five fragrances from a special collection termed Arabian Nights, Pure Oud may smell contemporary, even radical, to Western noses but in the region of its intended use it is familiar and well-loved. Oud itself is a dark resinous matter exuded by the wood of Aquilaria trees in response to a fungus attack. The ingredient is having something of a renaissance of late – it features in Tom Ford’s Private Blend line – but it is By Kilian’s use of the material, which critics say is most accomplished. Influential perfume blogs – which are notoriously difficult to impress – are full of praise for what one termed “the most accomplished Western take on oud that I’ve come across yet.”
A member of the French cognac family and grandson of the cofounder of LVMH, Kilian Hennessy, 37, grew up with an insider’s perspective of the luxury industry. After studying at the Sorbonne, Paris, where he wrote his thesis on the semantics of smell, he took “nose” classes at Cinquième Sens, a Paris perfume school. Twelve years of working in the marketing of perfumes for Dior, Paco Rabanne, and Giorgio Armani followed, before he founded By Kilian in 2007.
“The trick was to do a perfume that would have all the qualities of the luxury of yesterday but would be contemporary and not like a product from Marie Antoinette’s boudoir,” says Kilian of his mission. As such, there is a hint of the antique about By Kilian’s glossy wooden boxes with their satin bedding and silver key. A travel-sized spray is similarly considered, with intricate engraving.
As impressive as the By Kilian experience is, it is the scents themselves that Hennessy knows to be most important. Working with some of the best noses in the business and with unusual ingredients such as oud, By Kilian has quickly gained a cult following. “Every perfume has to bring something new to the market,” Hennessy sums up. “In terms of creativity what I try to do with my scents is to open new olfactory directions.”
What is the mission of By Kilian perfumes?
I had been working in the perfume industry for 12 years before leaving to build a collection that would be real luxury. For me, real luxury is going back to the level of luxury that perfumers once upon a time used to give to customers. If you go to the Baccarat museum in Paris, you can physically see the level of luxury that was given to customers 100 years ago. Everything you see in By Kilian – the wood boxes, satin bedding, keys, and tassels – all that was the norm 100 years ago. Today, people use cardboard boxes and disposable bottles. The idea was to do a perfume that would have all the qualities of the luxury of yesterday but would look contemporary and not like a product from Marie Antoinette’s boudoir.
How would you define luxury in the context of perfume?
For me, true luxury consists of a few things. Number one, it should have the feeling of a beautiful product. But more than that, what I wanted was a product where the customer would feel that she has something special and, at the end, she would not want to throw away. That’s why the wood box is very discreet and the satin bedding is removable, so people can re-use the box. More importantly, everything in the range is refillable at a third of the price of a new bottle. If you pay a heavy price and you have to throw it away at the end, you wonder what you paid for.
How does By Kilian differ from other perfume brands?
There are several things we do: there is the creativity part and then there is the quality part. In terms of creativity, what I try to do with my scents is to open new olfactory directions. For example, Back to Black is a tobacco scent. No one has done tobacco scents since in the 1970s – for me, it was interesting to redo a tobacco fragrance that would smell contemporary. Every perfume has to bring something new to the market; it cannot be a copy of a past perfume. In terms of quality, just the juice of By Kilian costs more than that of any other prestige perfume. The raw materials are top quality. I have a cost of goods that changes from product to product. For major companies that aren’t possible – all their perfumes cost similar amounts. A perfumer needs to have a total freedom and if you give them a budget then they are blocked from using certain materials or the amount they would like to use. My tuberose has 35 percent of absolute tuberose. If I had given the perfumer a budget, she would never have been able to do that.
How do you decide on the direction of the smell of a new perfume?
The only constraint, if I have one, is the name of the perfume. The name is like the script for a movie director. With a name like Aphrodisiac, you don’t want to say the same thing as Prelude to Love, which needs a more romantic, innocent flower. With an Aphrodisiac, you want something sexier.
Which perfumers do you work with?
Of the eight scents, six have been created by Calice Becker, who is well known in the industry because she made Dior’s J’Adore. And I have two perfumes done by a very young perfumer called Sidiney Losanseur from XXROBERTE in the South of France. She did her first fragrances with me.
Are you a “nose”?
A nose is someone who has done nose studies, but that’s really just practice. You can learn to cook at a school but that doesn’t make you a great chef. I did nose studies, so I know all the raw materials, and then I went into marketing. My work is more like that of artistic director but I am intimately involved with the raw materials too.
How easy is it for a new perfume brand to break into the already saturated beauty industry?
When you look at the rankings, the top brands are all pure perfumers, pure skincare brands or pure makeup brands. Chanel is the only big brand that manages to be in the top five. Otherwise, Crème de la Mer is almost always number one in skincare; Jo Malone in perfume; Bond hovers around number three or four; Tom Ford; Bobbi Brown; and La Prairie. They’re all pure, specialized brands, which I think is very interesting. It shows that when you reach a certain category of the population, these people are looking for specialists. They don’t want something mass-produced. They want more custom-made products.
What impresses when you smell a perfume on somebody?
It goes both ways. Sometimes I’m a bit disappointed. If I see a woman and she’s chic and so elegant, she should not be wearing such a mass-produced perfume. She should have more personality in her choices. And sometimes I’m surprised. When I started in the industry 10 years ago, perfume was always good; you couldn’t really buy a bad perfume. Today you sometimes smell perfume on people and it stinks. This was not always the case.
Do you wish to create timeless or contemporary fragrances?
Timelessness is a tricky concept. There’s a way to construct a perfume, where it is modern or not modern. For example, 50 years ago there was a lot of patchouli at the base of fragrances. So you hear a lot of women say old perfumes lasted a lot longer. Of course that was the case because patchouli is very long lasting. Today, it’s not the way we do things. For me, the most important thing is to smell contemporary and to smell of the time. Will my fragrances be considered a classic in the future? Only God knows. If you try to set out to create a classic, you will make something boring.
Tell us about your latest collection of perfumes.
For the launch of my collection in the Middle East, I wanted to offer a perfume that would be closer to the region’s taste. I didn’t want to be a Western brand that imposes its Western taste on the world. I find it more interesting to try to understand the local taste and offer a collection that is conceived with their psyche in mind. It’s an homage to their culture.
Which raw ingredients are you working with?
The idea is that this collection, Arabian nights, will be composed of five perfumes using five key raw materials from the Middle East: oud, rose, musk, amber and incense. I’m launching with Pure Oud, which is very animalistic and a scent that they love in this region. It is most precious to them – it used to be said that the price of oud was worth more than its weight in gold. That’s why I made the bottle all gold, to remember this saying.
What’s next for By Kilian?
My next fragrance, Back to Black is launched in September. At Bergdorf Goodman I’m moving my position in the store to a much larger, more beautiful space. Last year I did 50 bottles with Sophie Matisse that she hand painted; I’m going to do it again this year, but she will hand paint only 15, exclusively for Bergdorf Goodman. They will be painted in gold leaf on top of the black bottles, which will look great.